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GM rice fallout bedevils farmers

When Arkansas banned Clearfield 131 in early March, some opposed to the move pointed out no restrictions had been placed on the variety in neighboring, rice-growing states. Less than a week later, worries about an uneven playing field were eased when USDA banned planting of CL 131.

Now, just as the starter’s gun sounds for a new growing season, the popular variety is unavailable to all U.S. rice farmers. And the CL 131 ban comes due to trace amounts of a “mystery” GM trait recently discovered in the variety.

Concerns over the U.S. rice supply publicly surfaced last August when USDA announced trace amounts of a GM trait had been found in the nation’s rice supply. That trait, Bayer’s LibertyLink 601, was later identified in Cheniere, a highly popular long-grain. Cheniere was subsequently banned for planting in 2007 and genetic tests on all other seed were mandated.

Problems in CL 131 surfaced several months later.

Lab results from genetic testing on CL 131 have shown the trait in the variety isn’t one of the previously identified LL traits: LL 601, LL 62 or LL 06.

The fallout from the bans is already occurring.

“The biggest issue, at least in Arkansas, is seed supply,” said Chuck Wilson, Arkansas Extension rice specialist. “The numbers I’ve seen indicate there should be plenty of seed. But, if you don’t have seed booked already, you may not get the variety you want.

“A grower needs to make sure to do everything possible to get a good stand the first time, because re-plant seed may be really tight.”

Beginning last year, Wilson and his colleagues recommended reducing seeding rates. Planting in warm weather, using seed treatments and reducing seeding rates “will certainly help make sure there’s plenty of seed across the farms.

“For years, our recommendation was 90 pounds on silt loam soils. We can go as low as 70 pounds. The data from Southern states is pretty consistent in recommending 70 pounds to the acre. I feel comfortable with that in most situations.”

Wilson is also fielding questions from growers who had plans to grow CL 131. Many have serious red rice infestations.

“If they don’t have Clearfield 161 booked already, it’ll probably be hard to find some. Then, it comes down to making a decision on whether or not red rice infestations in those fields are light enough to allow a rice crop to be grown. That’s a decision farmers are being required to make.”

As of March 9, south Arkansas rice farmers were already “working ground. It’s dry and warm and diesel fuel is being burned. The first rice field may be planted (around March 16) if it stays as warm as it is now. Realistically, we don’t get started in earnest until the last week of March.

“From what I understand, at the beginning of the week (of March 5), about 3,000 acres of rice had been planted in Texas. Louisiana hadn’t planted quite that much.”

As a precaution, several days before it announced an outright ban on CL 131, the USDA put a stop-sale on the variety. That made a tight seed supply even tighter.

“Arkansas outlawed CL 131 and the federal government then put a hold on it,” said Ray Vester, rice farmer representative on the Arkansas State Plant Board. “But on top of that, BASF has said there will be no CL 131 going out for production. They’re going to begin again with the clean seed they have and it will be 2009 before any CL 131 will be available (commercially).

“The big question will be what to do on black, buckshot ground. A lot of producers have zero grading and are growing back-to-back rice. Clearfield can be heavily planted in those situations.”

Until APHIS identifies the trait in CL 131, “it’s hard for the FDA to make any statement about health effects,” said Darryl Little, Arkansas State Plant Board director. “What’s in CL 131 is at a magnitude way, way, way lower than what was in Cheniere. I assume we’ll flush it all through the channel just like we’re doing with Cheniere.”

If producers aren’t picky, there is rice seed available.

“We’ve got alternatives for CL 131,” said Scooter Hodges of Stratton Seed in Stuttgart, Ark. “The choices may not be what they want, but that’s all that’s left. Earlier, some wanted Jupiter, a medium-grain, but that supply was limited and it’s gone. Bengal is another option, but farmers usually take it reluctantly. Wells and Francis round out the long-grains. That’s basically what’s available: Wells, Francis and Bengal.”

Some rice farmers will be forced into growing soybeans, said John Alter, DeWitt, Ark., rice farmer and president of the Arkansas Rice Growers Association. “Rather than plant a conventional rice variety with urea at $400-plus per ton, I believe they’ll go to beans.

“The more input costs go up, the greater chance a farmer has of receiving huge dockage for red rice since, without Clearfield, there’s not a good weapon to fight it. That’s why beans in some of the most desperate red rice situations, even in low, flat land, might pencil out economically better than rice.”

In frequent conversations with rice farmers, “they continue to worry about planting regular rice behind a Clearfield variety,” said Ford Baldwin, Arkansas weed scientist, consultant and Delta Farm Press contributor. “That’s what many are most concerned about. And, truth is, it isn’t good stewardship to plant regular rice behind Clearfield. But a bunch of folks seem (determined) to do it.”

Like many rice farmers, Scott Matthews is frustrated with the slow pace of the GM rice investigation. And the continuing revelations aren’t conducive to restful sleep.

“What a mess this is,” says the Weiner, Ark.-area farmer. “It’s a slow-motion train wreck. What happens if in two months, when I’m fully planted, they find another variety showing a GM trait?

“Rice farmers are stuck in limbo. How can a rice farmer really be confident of any decision he’s making for his business right now? The facts I use to decide something today will probably change tomorrow.”

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